The teaching profession has always been heavy-laden with excessive workloads and teacher stress. The global pandemic arrived and made an already dire situation – worse. More exhausted teachers are experiencing burnout than ever before.
Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Individuals will experience feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, reduced professional efficacy,
increased mental distance from their job, and feelings of negativism or cynicism related to their work.
This blog explores how teachers feel about workplace stress, how COVID-19 has impacted teaching – and what schools are doing to support the health and wellbeing of their staff.
Teacher Stress: Paul Brand
Paul Brand, a former secondary school teacher, shared his own experience of burnout and “the intensity of the teacher mindset”.
“60 hour weeks were relatively normal and how long I’d have kept that up if a Land Rover hadn’t intervened with my motorbike when the first-born was only a few months old remains an unanswered question.”
“It shows the intensity of the teacher mindset that I remember nothing for a week after the accident and required air-lifting to hospital, but was apparently fussing about Y11 Controlled Assessments at the scene of the crash and insisted to the nurses every morning that I had to phone school to set cover!” Paul says.
Sadly, Paul’s reaction to stress is not unique. Many teachers are neglecting their health and well-being because of their commitment to school.
Educational psychologist Alan McLean, highlighted that the pressure to perform and get results is a significant contributor to teacher burnout.
He says: “Autonomy is gold dust for psychological well-being. The best cultures are those that give people lots of responsibility, challenges and demands but also lots of flexibility, ownership and independence.”
“The emphasis on teaching to test has routinised the job. I’m sure it has an effect on the level of burnout in the profession,” he added.
Secondary teachers around the UK were asked to share their experiences with workplace stress, here’s what they told us:
One teacher said: “I had a bottom set year 10 class in my first year after NQT and I had to meet with my line manager at the start of the year and explain how I was going to make sure they made the expected progress. I’d checked on SIMS beforehand and they’d actually made negative progress overall from the end of year 6 to the end of year 9.”
Another teacher said: “I knew it was the beginning of the end of my teaching career when I was told that I would only ever be graded as a “satisfactory” teacher because my SEND pupils weren’t making “3 levels of progress” in line with the school targets.”
“I’ve often thought that if I could have gone into every lesson with the same level of energy and enthusiasm as my very first day then I would have survived in teaching easily. But your mind and body simply can’t do that,” another teacher shared.
Teacher Stress: Jamie Thom
Jamie Thom, a Scottish secondary teacher who has worked in England, believes that the testing culture is the leading contributor of workplace stress.
He says: “There’s the pressure that comes from exam results and Ofsted gradings, and a lot of well-intentioned leaders might be driven by that, and that stress is then filtered through the school,”.
“I got promoted to being an assistant headteacher in an academy school. That came with the caveat that you had to work very long hours and Saturdays.
“The school culture was very much ‘work, work, work’. You had to upload your lesson plans on to a system where they were checked every morning, so obviously everybody was trying to write masterpieces. Some schools have a culture where they’re working teachers into the ground.”
COVID-19 Impact on Teacher Stress
The excessive workload and pressure of pupil progress all contribute to burnout. The workplace expectations are causing major stress and are simply unsustainable for most teachers.
Dr Lisa Kim and Dr Kathryn Asbury from the Department of Education, University of York, UK, led a research project called “Being a teacher in England during the COVID-19 pandemic”. As part of the project, interviews with 24 primary and secondary teachers were conducted to investigate the impact COVID-19 had on teachers.
One secondary teacher said: “I feel like I’m on overload. My brain feels like a browser with 100 tabs open. There is so much to think about all the time.”
Another interviewee shared that the teaching in a pandemic felt “Like a rug had been pulled from under you”.
These evocative testimonies make you wonder, how many teachers are experiencing this? “It’s hard to get a clear picture of the number who experience burnouts”, says Dr Lisa Kim.
“According to an NFER [National Foundation for Educational Research] report, more than 10 per cent of teachers leave within one year of qualifying and almost 30 per cent within five. Given that high workload is a well-known reason for why teachers leave the profession, one could deduce that perhaps burnout is, too.”
“When governments were announcing that schools should close, lots of focus was on the implications for pupils’ academic achievement and wellbeing – and so it should be. But it seemed that discussions of the support teachers needed were largely missing,” Dr Kim added.
In addition to increasing the already drowning workload with demands of teacher-assessed grades and “catch-up” curriculum, teachers have also been forced to keep up with the ever-changing schedules and procedures in light of COVID-19. The constant need to navigate and adapt to new challenges in teaching is overwhelming. Teachers are also responsible for disinfecting desks, ensuring students adhere to social distancing and mask wearing guidelines, and covering for self-isolating colleagues – on top of all their other responsibilities.
The pandemic has completely destroyed all remnants of a work-life balance because we were all forced to work from home. The past 14 months in education has left many teachers depleted.
Supporting Teacher Wellbeing
The Department for Education published a new Education Staff Wellbeing Charter, in May this year.
The charter presented the Government’s commitment to ensuring the “wellbeing and mental health of everyone working in education”.
Jamie Thom shared that there have also “been more conversations about supporting each other, wellbeing and self-care” in schools.
He believes that the way classroom teachers are viewed and the way they view themselves needs to change.
“It’s also important that we rebrand the role of the classroom teacher,” notes Thom.
“Being a classroom teacher isn’t given enough prestige,” he says. “People always say, ‘I’m “just” a classroom teacher,’ but it’s an incredibly important, meaningful and challenging job.”.
Alan McLean believes that school leaders must provide support for their staff.
“In a workplace, you’re trying to establish a shared reality, shared expectations. In a vacuum, people will fill it with all sorts of things, going the extra mile in different ways – it’s a bottomless pit,” he says.
McLean suggests pairing people up to support each other through peer mentoring as a powerful intervention.
“Teachers also need to be able to admit that they are struggling”, says McLean.
This is hard to do in an environment that revolves around hard work, progress and results.
“For people who’ve experienced burnout, their identity has been eroded, their self-worth has been eroded. It’s cumulative – drip, drip, drip. It takes quite a long time to rebuild,” says McLean.
He urges teachers to change the way they view negative emotions. Instead of suppressing them, teachers should pay special attention to them. “They’re there to tell you to wake up and redirect yourself,” he says.
Redirecting could mean taking yourself to a different school. “Some schools are run in ways that are not healthy and you have to step outside to realise, ‘Wow, that’s a really dysfunctional place,’” says Thom.
Thom shares his experience with escaping a toxic workplace just to find himself in the same position.
“I struggled for a couple of years after leaving my previous school,” Thom shares.
“For a start, you do feel almost humiliated because you think, ‘Why has this happened when other people seem to be functioning really well in the same environment?’ And a burnout experience is quite traumatic. Unless you deal with all the feelings of stress and anxiety you experienced, you take them to another environment with you.”
“I’ve had a lot more time with my wee boy and have really valued that and have thought, ‘How can I use my time more effectively when I’m back in school so I can keep some of that going?’” he says. “Hopefully people will have thought a bit more about work-life boundaries, balance and valuing the things that are really important.”
Though it has brought about many challenges, the pandemic may have a silver lining because it forced us to take a closer look at the issue of burnout in the teaching profession. Do not be your own worst enemy when it comes to your mental health. Find ways to boost your well-being daily and look after yourself!
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